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Bannister and Hillary
Frank Deford
December 27, 1999
Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport
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December 27, 1999

Bannister And Hillary

Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport

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Of course, these were two very different challenges. Mount Everest was there; the mile could be anywhere. Mount Everest was the last in the geographical set that made up the goals of what had been known as the Heroic Age. The Poles had been reached, the mouth of the Nile found, the deepest oceans marked, the wildest jungles trekked. But no one had climbed the 29,000-some-odd feet of Mount Everest (29,002, it was thought then; 29,035, we have it now) to stand at the crest of the world. But neither had any human being run 5,280 feet in less than four minutes. The record had been reduced to 4:01.4, but there it had stood, unyielding, since 1945. A physical limit? A psychological hurdle? Whatever, 4:00.0 had become a symbolic figure, and the pursuit of it was essential to our mythology.

Oh, yes, it all might appear so quaint now, what with the mile record down to Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:43.13 and with tourist buses, it seems, stopping for Nieman-Marcus box lunches at the Everest summit. But in the early '50s these two romantic quests genuinely inspired the vision of good people who had fought wars and Depression for most of this century and who held to the faith that fine, intrepid men were still about, ready to astound us with their devotion to a noble goal. We had that on the best authority. Winston Churchill, who in 1951 had been returned to 10 Downing Street, had said of his people in 1941, "We have not journeyed all tins way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

II. THE BUGBEAR

It had helped Bannister that he was a good sort who would go over the Magdalen Bridge to the Iffley Road track at Oxford and help shovel off the snow. This was a factor in earning him a spot on the university's third team. Certainly, he was not a prepossessing physical specimen, and in fact, for a runner, he moved with an ungainly gait, rather prefiguring Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. But then, out of the blue, on March 22, 1947, when Bannister was being used as a pacer for the first-team Oxford runners against Cambridge, something happened. Bannister simply did not stop; he won the mile by 20 yards in 4:30.8. "I knew from this day," he said, "that I could develop this newfound ability."

Still, however, he continued to view athletics primarily as something "fun," while his respect went to the well-rounded man. "We felt that we belonged to a tradition that was dying," he explains. "I don't mean the tradition of British privilege. In fact, I came from quite an ordinary background and attended Oxford only because I won a scholarship. No, the tradition was of running and working—and while you were studying, being part of a team."

Today, the esteemed Dr. Bannister and his wife, Moyra, have a flat in the city, to which he refers, like all English, irrespective of geography, as "up in London." The Bannisters, in retirement, reside mostly in Oxford, which is itself north—up—from London. They returned there some years ago, when he was appointed Master of Pembroke, one of his alma mater's colleges. It is a position of honor and consequence, which he held until 1994. "It was a significant event in my life," he says, "to come back to Oxford, where I had been so very happy." Pointedly, he does not say, Where I came to fame as the first man to run the four-minute mile.

The Bannisters live barely a mile or so from the Iffley Road track, in a corner house with a perfect English garden, jammed with shrubbery and bright blooms—that familiar embroidery that lets us know precisely where we are. That assurance of place, of heritage, helps us understand why Bannister thinks back on the everyday at Oxford, rather than on his day of days.

In from the garden, though, the house is cluttered with the fine handiwork of Moyra—she paints and makes ceramic plates—played off against all manner of knockabout toys for visiting grandchildren. However, virtually no trophies are on display, inasmuch as Bannister gave them to Pembroke, including the Greek amphora that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presented to him in 1954 as its first Sportsman of the Year. In a dark hallway, beneath some apparently incidental family pictures, at about knee level, ignored and hanging askew, is the famous photograph of Bannister breasting the tape at Iffley Road.

Just turned 70, Bannister is exactly a decade younger than Hillary. In 1975 Bannister was almost killed in a head-on automobile collision. His injuries were so terrible that he never again could run. Today, however, no traces of his accident remain evident. Neither do his eyeglasses dim his bright blue-gray eyes, and at 6'1½" he remains lank and animated, downright antsy. He is more comfortable sitting atop a high swivel chair, in which he often spins himself around. If not twirling, he is wont to glance away, here and there, as he talks, always in sentences so complete that one all but hears the commas. Sometimes, though, the doctor will throw himself off the chair and pace about.

Bannister is not irritated that his youthful feat follows him down through his years. For a long time, in fact, he presented commemorative neckties to those others who broke the barrier—till running ye olde four-minute mile became so commonplace that he would have needed to become a haberdasher to keep up with the demand. Still, Bannister has had to relive the memory so often that it bores him. So all of a sudden, "Can't we talk some about afterwards?" he cries out, springing off his chair, plunging about the room.

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